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At The Movies: Les Miserables, or Jean Valjean’s Baffling Sequence Of Life Choices

2013 March 5

It’s only fair to tell you that there’s spoilers in here, but guys, the musical’s been out for literally decades! I mean, I hadn’t seen it and didn’t know the plot or anything, but I think I was the only person left on earth.

Oh, readers. I’ve done that thing again. I’ve gone and seen Les Miserables without having seen the musical or read the book and now I’m writing about it without the massive burning swollen bladder of fandom that everyone else seems to have about it, and as such, will probably sound a bit naive. I had literally no idea what it was about. Well, apart from “France” and “revolution” and some presumably rather miserable people and – something that was used to successfully sell the whole thing to me – pretty young men draped attractively about the place in military uniform, covered in blood. Oh, and Hugh Jackman singing. He apparently does lots of musicals in Australia, and I was curious to know what that was like, since I know him primarily as the not-very-musical-ready Wolverine.

 

An illustration on textured paper. A young pale-skinned man with spectacles and orange hair sits on a solitary cinema seat, while large, cartoon waves of water crash around him.  There are tiny boats awash on the ocean, labeled FEELS.

Maybe I should just hand in my human card at the desk.

Did I like it? Well… yes. I think? Sort of. There was a lot that I found either directly unappealing or straight-up baffling, but overall, there was sufficient stuff in there to make me want to see it onstage. And, well, I’m a sucker for musicals.

The main thing about this film is that it suffers from being a film. There are things that you can only do in the magical reality of the stage, and this particular production (directed by Tom Hooper) tries on the whole gritty reality thing (except with people singing all the time) and therefore can’t get away with similar tricks and tactics. This is most glaringly obvious in how they depict (or not) the passage of time. There were some bits that were completely confusing because I just couldn’t tell whether or not time was meant to have passed or not. For example, on stage, as my stage-show-fan friend tells me, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) can waft in and out of the set to show many days passing between her selling her hair and her teeth before eventually being forced by circumstance into becoming a sex worker. In the film, it looked like she’d lost her job, and then immediately sold everything in her face and became a sex worker.

I was like, wow that’s a terrible afternoon.

It happened again after Cosette’s (Amanda Seyfried) wedding. “I can never tell my adopted daughter that I’m an ex-con!,” Valjean howls, sheathing his Adamantium talons and fleeing for the hills, where he staggers into a convent and casually dies in the corner. I assumed he’d had an ill-publicised heart attack in the carriage on the way over.

The next problem I had with Les Mis was the way Valjean was so suffused with his role as apparently French Ex-Con Jesus that for me he ended up being completely impossible to identify with. I found his motives and decisions inexplicable to the point of being hilarious. I wanted to have the film retitled “Jean Valjean’s Baffling Sequence Of Life Choices” because in this rendition at least, he comes off as too saintly, too self-righteous and too… incongruously self-sacrificial for me to see him as a real person and empathise with him. Ever.

An illustration on textured paper. Depicts the protagonist and antagonist of Les Miserables, the former, Valjean, on the right, and the latter, Javert, on the left. Both are middle-aged white men.  Javert is wearing a police uniform; Valjean is wearing a brown overcoat, waistcoat and cravat.  He has a halo and a pained expression.  Javert looks nonplussed and impatient.

“Also I have to dive out of this window now lol bye” “YOU BAFFLING SCOUNDREL”

And what on earth was going on with the cinematography when anyone was having a solo? With a stage show, if someone has a solo, you’ve got them as a figure in context with the set, the extras, all embalmed in live music. So you can empathise with them properly because there’s this whole holistic musical experience going on. Not so with the film, where the director has decided that the best way to make you empathise with the solo singer is to have a VERY TIGHT CLOSE-UP of the singer’s face, slightly off-centre, while they cry and sing at the same time. This is not how you make your audience empathise with anyone or anything. I found myself wondering how they’d done Anne Hathaway’s makeup while the rest of the cinema sobbed around me.

Has now sported this look in about 32,412 films, but is working it

Has now sported this look in about 32,412 films, but is working it

Right, time to talk about Javert. As my more long-term readers will know, I’m a villainsexual creep, and my darling friend who kindly dragged me from my Doom Fortress to see this flick accurately predicted that I’d have the hots for Javert. She was not wrong. I have never before fancied Russell Crowe in anything ever (in fact, quite the opposite) but I honestly found Javert the only character that I empathised with and found engaging and explicable. Plus, he’s got an attractive array of uniforms and shiny boots. In fact, that was a great way to tell – in the absence of any bloody thing else – the passage of time. It had to be later on: Javert had MOAR BRAID. I’m okay with that. Time-keeping through the medium of men in uniform? I’m deleting my phone’s clock app this afternoon.

I actually quite enjoyed the fatalistic pointlessness of barricade-building rich white boys1 harping on about no longer being slaves and changing the world and then being run over with cannons. That was grand. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a structures-of-oppression-ruining bloody revolution, but this is a film, and I’m a bloodthirsty little boy with the need for something hard and horrible to counteract Valjean’s large-overcoated saintliness, so I was overwhelmed with the beauty of their cataclysmic failure. So beautiful. So horrible. So… uh.

Deserves better than Marius, period. In fact, deserves own, better-orchestrated revolution not being led by Marius & co.

Deserves better than Marius, period. In fact, deserves own, better-orchestrated revolution not being led by Marius & co.

Now, Eponine (Samantha Barks). Eponine is meant to be an empathic, sadface-inducing character, and she’s sweet and earnest and I rather liked her. But Marius, the guy she’s in love with, is so boring. I just wanted her to get over it and find someone interesting who doesn’t apparently fall madly in love with people when he glimpses their hats from a distance through a crowd.

It’s always nice to see Helena Bonham-Carter reprising her timeless role of “Cackling Woman With Hair” (I don’t think they even give her a costume, do they? That’s all just her wardrobe), too. And I sincerely hope that after playing Signor Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, Sasha Baron-Cohen is typecast as Musical Skeevy Comic Relief for the rest of his life and never plays another vaguely-veiled bigoted stereotype ever again.

Overall, it really wasn’t as miserable as I was expecting. Valjean lives a long and successful life, Cosette and the boring Marius (the gorgeous Eddie Redmayne) get married, Fantine’s wishes are vindicated, all that stuff, and everyone dies happily ever after with a rousing song about sticking it to the man. All this talk about how much sobbing it elicits from people generally makes me wonder if someone’s snuck into my room at night and glued my tearducts shut. It struck me as generally rather uplifting and “Oh well! Songs and Christian Love!” rather than “DESPAIR AND CHIPS FOR EVERYONE”.

To summarise! YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:

  • The music is genuinely brilliant. Believe the hype.
  • Everyone plays really, really well. Flawless performances from Anne Hathaway (in particular), Wolverine, and even Russell “Are You Not Entertained?” Crowe, who has a spectacularly grizzly, stoic turn as Javert
  • It really does look exceedingly good

YOU SHOULD NOT SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:

  • I’m not sure how many of the characters feel like real people, honestly
  • It suffers from its own medium in a few glaringly obvious and immersion-breaking ways
  • It feels pretty obnoxiously long, but that might just have been me and my bladder having a disagreement
  • People do sing pretty much all the time and you might be allergic to musicals, but if you’re allergic to musicals WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO SEE LES MISERABLES
  1. Ed’s Tiny Note: are they meant to be an underclass? Despite Eddie Redmayne being a Rather Cut-Glass Etonian ;). Anyone read Hugo/able to verify how they’re meant to come across?! []
12 Responses leave one →
  1. March 7, 2013

    and – something that was used to successfully sell the whole thing to me – pretty young men draped attractively about the place in military uniform, covered in blood.

    I actually quite enjoyed the fatalistic pointlessness of barricade-building rich white boys harping on about no longer being slaves and changing the world and then being run over with cannons.

    Yesssssss this.

    I disagree that they’re supposed to be actually downtrodden – from what I remember in the book (which I read when I was 16 and really grumpy about it) was that they were all doing poli sci PhDs living off their trust funds, and maybe one or two had a ‘job’ but they were very middle-class and arty (was someone a fan painter?).

    But basically YOUNG EARNEST MIDDLE-CLASS REVOLUTIONARIES WITH NO LIFE SKILLS <3

    Also, I don't get why people were ragging on Russell Crowe's singing, he was totally fine and his first solo was one of my favourite parts of the movie so there.

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 7, 2013

      I wasn’t sure on this (I’m the ed) being as new to the material as Markgraf! Very happy to be corrected :)

      • March 7, 2013

        Again this is based on my reading it at 16 and then drunkenly looking up fanfiction about the hot revolutionaries after seeing the movie, but I’m pretty sure that’s about right. There were definitely Actually Poor People around but I don’t think the excitable young men had any cash flow issues. Which is just darling.

        • Miranda permalink*
          March 7, 2013

          Now I think about it, I vaguely remember a bit (which I hope I’ve not wishfully made up) where Eponine does a “…you really don’t get it, do you?” face at Marius & co, and I like to think it’s imbued with slightly more than romantic unrequitedness and also “You boys are a bit clueless” more generally.

          • March 7, 2013

            “It’s OK, Actual Poor Person. WE GOT THIS.”

    • Rhian E Jones (@RhianEJones) permalink
      March 8, 2013

      :D Yes, there’s one, fairly objectified, working-class fan-maker (called, unpronounceably, Feuilly) among the students, but the rest of them admit in song to being rich young boys who aren’t sure if they’re merely playing at revolution or fully committed. More on this when I’m not drunk and if, improbably, you’re interested.

      • Miranda permalink*
        March 8, 2013

        I have really been enjoying reading your LM thoughts elsewhere! Please do!

  2. March 7, 2013

    I’m going to see this film I think you’ve convinced me, I’ve been umming and ahhing over whether it would be any good – I mean like really good – but I might as well. Nothing to lose!

  3. March 8, 2013

    My partner was huge fan of Les Mis when she was a teenager, so we had to see it. I think Jean Valjean’s strange life choices only make sense in the context of Catholicism/Anti-Catholicism. Victor Hugo started out Catholic and then became very anti-Catholic and the story seems to be wrangling with that. As an ex-Catholic, the story felt pretty familiar to me – suffering, redemption etc.

  4. March 9, 2013

    Definitely not meant to be an underclass. Definitely meant to be rich white boys pulling a revolution on behalf of a poor who have better things to do.

    At least that’s what I get from my Les Mis loving roommate.

  5. James permalink
    March 9, 2013

    Javert is definitely my favorite character: I find Stars and his final soliloquy really affecting.

  6. pedro permalink
    March 11, 2013

    Hello
    In some measure, I share your critic about Val Jean. Too saintly, yes. But also remember that the musical was sort of a summary of a book of 1300 pages. In the book Val jean had some complex moments, not so saintly. For example, he does not “converts” inmediately after the bishop pardoned and gives him the silver. With the silver in his bag, he goes slowly out of town, he is confused, he does not know what to think, what to do. He sits in a stone in the fields. Then a boy, a young labourer, passes near him playing with a valuable coin. The coin falls near Valjean, he puts the feet over it and when the boy asks for his money, Valjean first acts like “Dont know what are you talking about” and then he shouts: “get out of here NOW”, grasping his stick. A moment after, he realized that he has been very nasty, specially because all this was AFTER he was saved and blessed by the bishop, and he runs by the fields looking for the boy, “Petit Gervais!, Petit Gervais”, but nobody answers. “I am a wretched man!”, he sobs. Of course the scene is 100 ways better than this briefing.
    Regards,
    Pedro.

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